Red October 2022

Keep the faith: Grease pole climbing advice from a former champion

Frankie Longo, who’s won the Italian Market Festival competition multiple times, has some tips on what not to do.

Frankie Longo, showing off past prowess at the annual grease pole climbing competition on South 9th Street

Frankie Longo, showing off past prowess at the annual grease pole climbing competition on South 9th Street

Courtesy Frankie Longo
Nick Kariuki

When Philadelphians try to clamber up greased street poles after a team’s big win, fellow fans see a unique way the city stands out in the nation’s sporting traditions. The rest of the country sees rowdy fans getting out of control, possibly with a hint of envy.

Frankie Longo, a former champion and legend of the South 9th Street Italian Market Festival’s annual grease pole climbing competition, sees novices overestimating their core strength.

“People can’t hold their own weight,” Longo told Billy Penn. “People are in worse shape than they envision themselves. Social media has brought everyone to the forefront of ‘I can do that’ — and they can’t.”

Greased pole climbing, like most strenuous activities, takes a good bit of experience and body awareness, he said.

“If people are going to climb, just know your own weight, know your own strength, keep your legs wrapped in a crisscross fashion,” Longo advised

How soon could this advice be put to use?

The Phillies are now in Houston with the uphill task of needing to win two World Series games against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. And despite the Eagles going 8-0 for the first time in the team’s history, it’s too early to postulate about the Super Bowl, lest we tempt the fickle gods of sporting fate.

If the Phils upend the odds and manage to secure a the Fall Classic title, there’s little doubt that while fireworks fly and “Dancing on My Own” blasts through the city, there will be some attempts to clamber up light poles, traffic lights, and street signs that have been coated with Bio-Bottle Jack Hydraulic Fluid ISO32, which is what officials now use instead of Crisco.

A fan celebrating the Phillies pennant win atop a street light on Broad

A fan celebrating the Phillies pennant win atop a street light on Broad

Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

The tradition of pole climbing traces its origins back to Italy, and has been an on-again-off-again staple of South Philly culture since the 1960s.

Longo, now 52, has successfully made it to the top several times in his decades competing, even as recently as 2016, as a 46-year-old.

The Catholic schools Longo and his peers attended in South Philadelphia didn’t offer much rope climbing or other phys ed staples that would help prepare for the annual grease pole contest at 9th and Montrose streets, he said. So they built skills with children’s games like jailbreak and manhunt, where speed and maneuverability trumped size and strength.

The neighborhood’s buildings and awnings also provided an ample obstacle course to practice. This amateur parkour sometimes led to trouble with the churches.

“The priests would see us on a roof trying to get the balls that we roofed from playing stickball,” Longo said. “We would climb up there as 12-year-old kids, like nothing. That’s three-story buildings, so you’re 30 feet in the air.”

At the festival’s pole climb, participants — who first sign a waiver and take a breathalyzer — work as a team to get someone up to the ring of prizes, standing on each other to help shorten the most nimble climbers’ distance to the top. But even that coordinated human ladder is far from a stable object, with Longo describing it as “like trying to grab a bag of chains.”

The Italian Market Festival competition is a group effort

The Italian Market Festival competition is a group effort

Courtesy Frankie Longo

Longo argued that the city slicking up poles as official protocol creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in this age of cameras and social media: “The bottom line is, if they never greased the poles, people wouldn’t try to challenge it.”

He was also clear about the hazards of trying to climb a street pole, especially if you’re buzzed.

“The poles have a lot of the sign bridges on them that can get cut,” Longo said “They’re not smooth. They got old paint, rusted. They got metal edges, and people don’t realize that when they have liquor in them and stuff.”

Booze can present another problem for climbers and those beneath them, if the person were to drop it onto the people watching below.

“If you want to climb up the Eiffel Tower, go ahead,” he said. “But don’t do it with a phone in your hand, a beer bottle, where other people under you could get hurt.”

Despite the risks, Longo said he empathizes with those who celebrated the Phillies’ NLCS victory, or who plan to do it in the future.

“If I was younger, yes, of course I would have [climbed a street pole],” he said.

In fact, Longo expects his 18-year-old son, who participated in his first Italian Market Festival pole climb this year, to be part of the crowd on the street, should the Phillies actually pull off their first World Series title since 2008.

“Yeah, my son’s going to be out there saying, ‘Dad, you did it. I’m doing it.'” Longo said. His wife was worried, but he knows it’s inevitable.

“What’s going to happen? He’s respectable enough to know if somebody tells him to get down, he’ll get down. He’s not an arrogant person — but he’s going to want to climb.”

Want some more? Explore other Red October 2022 stories.

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